Mary Gauthier is a terrific songwriter and charismatic performer. She’s got the voice of a gamin mixed with the aches of a hard life: someone too young to know better and too old to change now. Gauthier has been playing live for more than a decade and compiled a half dozen albums that have earned the praise of such rock luminaries as Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. This is her first live release.
There doesn’t seem to be any particular theme to the selections. She chooses a variety eight songs from her past records and three covers of tunes by Canadian Fred Eaglesmith. This is not a greatest hits album (missing are gems such as “Christmas in Paradise” and “Mercy Now”), although some of her best work from the past finds its way here like the gently evocative “Our Lady of the Shooting Stars” and the plaintive “Blood is Blood”. The hour long disc simply seems like a recent set list Gauthier compiled while traveling to different towns and seeing what songs work with an audience and which ones don’t.
Gauthier is one of today’s most poetic lyricists. She unselfconsciously drops tropes like, “Clouds are spreading like bruises on the evening sky”, “he knew how our nation was doing by the length of a sidewalk cigarette butt” and “Dirty hair, dirty laundry, dirty money, dirty rain, the dirty dark at daybreak burning sugarcane”, whose images resonate with deep meanings and forward her narratives. That’s because Gauthier is also a first rate story teller. She bends your ear with a tale about “The Last of the Hobo Kings” that evokes America’s free past and restrictive present through the eyes of one of its independent nobles: when the difference between a hobo, a tramp, and a bum mattered. Then she offers the true fable of Karla Faye, a junkie whore who killed a man in cold blood and then not only learned how to cry in prison, but how to love the world, before she was put to death in Texas. Gauthier keeps the listener on edge by putting her own empathy front and center. Her songs may be peopled by cast offs, misfits, odd balls, and worse, but Gauthier embraces them all as sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers.
Family, or more properly, the feeling of belonging, has always been central to Gauthier’s work. She also knows the other side of the coin: loneliness. Hence, her bittersweet “I Drink”, which concerns a child with an emotionally distant father, who grows up feeling isolated from everyone and finds solace in alcohol. She understands both the old man’s just wanting to be left undisturbed and the daughter’s need for love as one of those sad life situations. Sometimes, life just sucks and we find dignity where we can.
The live album features Gauthier on guitar, harmonica, and vocals backed by Mike Meadows on percussion and Tania Elizabeth on fiddle, vocals and percussion. Gauthier sings intimately. She’s not quiet as much as conversational, and gets lets the words ebb and flow. Elizabeth’s radiant fiddling elevates the gritty tales into a more ethereal plane, where hobos may be angels and trains headed for glory. Meadows drives the motion ever forward. Gauthier’s stories are always going somewhere (even the three written by Eaglesmith), and Meadows makes sure the songs never drag.
Live albums serve to document the power of a musician to move an audience. Live at Blue Rock convincingly shows Gauthier’s ability to transform a concert into something more than just singing and clapping. She transports her listeners to better place. She touches their hearts and soul. Here is the evidence.